In what they describe as "the most comprehensive examination to date" of this issue, American researchers, led by Jean Twenge at San Diego State University, have tested these two possible explanations by trawling published and unpublished data on self-reported undergraduate narcissism, dating from the late 1970s to the present day.
The researchers focused only on studies that collected data using the Narcissistic Personality Inventory, which requires respondents to choose between 40 forced-choice alternatives, such as: "I can live my life anyway I want to" vs. "People can't always live their lives in terms of what they want". The search uncovered 85 samples, involving 16,475 university students.
The data showed today's youth really are more egotistical than in previous eras. Levels of self-reported narcissism were found to have risen year on year from the late 70's to today, with the effect that two thirds of contemporary students scored above the narcissistic average for students tested in the years 1979-1985.
Twenge's team said their finding was consistent with other research showing generational increases in self-esteem, extraversion and assertiveness. Narcissism has its benefits in terms of self belief and confidence, the researchers said, but also comes with costs, tending to be associated with risky decision-making, aggression and addiction.
A limitation of the research, as acknowledged by the researchers, is that only data from undergraduates was analysed (and only in America). It's possible that the narcissism of all age groups, not just young people, has increased over recent decades.
Twenge, J.M., Konrath, S., Foster, J.D., Keith Campbell, W., Bushman, B.J. (2008). Egos Inflating Over Time: A Cross-Temporal Meta-Analysis of the Narcissistic Personality Inventory. Journal of Personality, 76(4), 875-902. DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-6494.2008.00507.x
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